The ideas factory

More clients are realising that great ideas and creativity are not the preserve of above-the-line agencies, says David Reed

Ideas don’t care who has them. Unfortunately, clients do. The result is that brand strategy is often set by advertising agencies, then passed below the line to be executed in targeted media. Clients are sometimes guilty of asking direct marketing (DM) agencies simply to fold the ad and put it in an envelope.

With the growth of integrated marketing and customer insight, this clearly need not be the case. Should not a great idea be executable, regardless of the discipline of the agency that thought of it? And even where one agency has to follow another’s lead, does that have to stifle creativity?

Not according to a growing number of below-the-line creatives. Clark McKay & Walpole has worked for Marbles since it launched in 1999. Above-the-line work was handled for the first 18 months by Mother, until the agency was poached to work on the Egg account.

“HFC Bank came to us and said it wanted to tie all communications together and handed everything to us,” says executive creative director Steve Walpole. This has allowed his agency steadily to translate the tone of voice it established for DM from the outset into other media. “It creates the feeling that this is a real person talking,” he says.

Out of the ordinary

The big idea for the brand proposition grew out of research into the target market and its expectations. “We came up with the idea of ‘a life less ordinary’, which became the brand essence of Marbles. It fell out of that campaign,” says Walpole.

Two campaigns have subsequently allowed this positioning to be expressed across all channels. “Logic” dealt with the way in which consumers rationalise buying the things they want, rather than need, by offering loans for any purpose.

A more challenging proposition was how to apply this to consolidation loans. “We came up with ‘Reverse Logic’, which said ‘borrow more money to save money’. Everything in the pack was back to front, even the letter began with the PS and signature,” he says. Both campaigns involved television and press ads, as well as DM.

At Ware Anthony Rust, creative director Dale Haste says his agency has been lucky to work with a client that did not pigeonhole its abilities. “Multiyork didn’t come to us as either an ad or DM agency. It approached us because of our thinking,” he says.

Furniture manufacturer and retailer Multiyork does not split its internal marketing team by discipline; instead, everything it does is driven by the brand and its business goals. “That’s the thinking at Multiyork. We looked at the proposition, brand positioning and point of difference – that the company’s furniture is tailor-made – then went to the market with that message. It integrated everything,” says Haste.

His agency produces work ranging from TV advertising through to DM. “The work is about what the idea means in each format. We are not precious about only doing TV advertising, for instance. We are as excited about every opportunity – that is the heart of a good creative,” he says.

Rising to the challenge

Having a campaign theme or brand strategy set by an above-the-line ad agency does not have to restrict below-the-line creativity, however. In some ways, it represents an even bigger challenge than starting from a blank sheet.

Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw works on two accounts as the DM partner to an ad agency – Saatchi & Saatchi for the NSPCC and Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners for the National Blood Service (NBS). “Nobody drives the brand. Everybody has a common agenda,” says managing partner Marc Nohr.

With NBS, celebrity-led TV ads had set the theme of “do something amazing”. “You can’t just send out a letter from Gary Lineker – it’s too obvious,” he says. Research showed that consumers found stories about other ordinary individuals’ lives being saved by blood transfusions to be every bit as engaging as celebrity tales.

The agency took a completely different approach for a niche mailing to 17-year-olds, encouraging them to become blood donors. Using “anarchic typography” and the right tone of voice, it pointed out that “stuff happens”, that people lose their lives without blood.

Not all accounts allow for this degree of flexibility. “The ‘matching luggage’ approach can be important if you are in a commodity market or it is central to the brand. For instance, for Virgin, everything we do is red,” says Nohr.

DM practitioners make a point of difference between brand guidelines and advertising themes. “With Volvo, any piece of creative work we do follows its core brand values, rather than its most recent TV ads,” says Frazer Howard, creative director at EHS Brann Cirencester.

“Volvo is very happy to consider work from whoever is doing it, if it fulfils a particular brief. It does not limit us to DM,” he says. This has seen the agency create radio ads and a complete through-the-line campaign. The car company’s brand positioning is “preserve and celebrate”. When put into a DM context, this has been expressed by sending a pack with the strapline “You’re going to need one of these”. Inside was a real sealtbelt buckle. “It provided a very tangible visualisation of the brand,” says Howard.

At its strongest, a big idea coming from one agency type can lead to big changes in other areas. Geronimo has been working on the Felix cat-food account for 11 years and supplies a research and insight manager for its UK marketing department.

Colour blind

Above-the-line work by BMP DDB had built a strong equity in the black-and-white animation. “The advertising has been very strong for 11 years. It gets tremendous cut-through, awareness and enjoyment scores. On the other hand, it suffers from people not getting a message from it about the product itself,” says Geronimo chief Julian Dodds.

When the client wanted to play on the theme of the product tasting good, his agency came up with a radical promotional idea – changing the name on the label from Felix to Tasty. “It was a bold step. But in research, we found that the product graphics are so strong, consumers don’t need to see the name to know it is Felix. That was the beauty of it – and some probably didn’t even realise the name had changed,” says Dodds.

The campaign did meet with some resistance within Nestlé Purina Petfoods, but the UK client decided to take the risk. “It does depend on the client. It is all about your relationship – and your ideas,” he says. Those are wise words for any DM agency that wants to flex its creative muscles outside its traditional arenas.

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